Parenting around the world with atsuko nakagawa

Parenting around the world with atsuko nakagawa

We interview Atsuko Nakagawa, discussing co-sleeping, family traditions and the importance of community in Kyoto City, Japan. 

Work and creativity

We mainly work on picture books and illustrations; however, we also work in various fields such as crafts and workshops too. We also art direct TV programs and do stage production. See Here


I grew up in a normal family, not a creative one. My parents are rather conservative but my mother has always been interested in food safety and organic and I think that she passed that interest on to me. Nowadays, we often hear organic and eco-friendly but when I was a little girl, there were still many food additives in Japan, and pesticide-free vegetables were only available in a limited number of stores. My mother belonged to a group and helped out in the rice paddies and even rented a small field to grow vegetables. She cooked various kinds of dishes, but I always wondered why our bread was so sour (since it was yeast bread).


We have two kids – a daughter who is 12 and a son who is 8. Right now, I cannot look at myself objectively about my own parenting but our family environment is very different to how I grew up. My children are seeing parents who are doing the same job at home and who have creative friends and business partners since they were born. I think it’s really good for kids to see so many adults enjoying their work and life. I often wonder though if we are a little overprotective because we spend a lot of time with our children at home.

Celebrating birthdays

For family birthdays, each family member makes a handmade birthday card.

We draw the face of the person having the birthday and stand it on a cake. We take birthdays easy but keep it fun. In Japan, birthdays are often just celebrated by the family.


In Japan it was common in the past to have futons arranged side by side in one room and sleep together. We had a Japanese-style tatami room in the house in Tokyo where we slept together on the futon when our children were still little. I think it is a heartwarming scene to have everyone squeeze together, to hold hands, to overlap each other and do a Japanese word chain game. Sleeping arrangements vary from family to family, and it also depends on the size of the house. However, I was surprised when I heard that in Western cultures, children sleep in different rooms to the babies! In Japan, I don’t think people let their children sleep alone until they are in primary school.

Family traditions

We celebrate Setsubun. Setsubun is a festival held one day before the start of Spring. People perform rituals with the purpose of chasing away evil spirits. My husband is very enthusiastic and he calls himself a ‘serious demon’. He handmakes a scary demon mask to make the kids cry. Seriously! He has been doing it every year since the year our children were born but in recent years, as they’ve got older, it’s become harder to scare them.


I think it’s difficult to live in isolation especially when you have children. I feel it’s important to live with a certain degree of connection to the place you are living. The ideal child-rearing environment is one where the community watches over gently rather than too closely. In Kyoto, we have the community festival ‘Jizo Bon’ in Summer. We chant Nembutsu (Buddhist prayers) and spin prayer beads in gratitude to Jizo (statue) who is the guardian of the children in the area where we live. After thanking Jizo, the local grandparents and adults prepare entertainment for the children like puppet shows, yo-yo fishing (water balloon fishing), raffles to win sweets.

Celebrating milestones

When our daughter was born, we made handmade Japanese Hina dolls and when our son was born we made handmade Samurai dolls. We put 120% of our creator power to make it a treasure for them. Both our parents also made them and I look forward to decorating them each year.


I always think that there is a lot to be learned about living, in primary and junior high schools but I also think they still educate kids the same way as we were educated as children. This makes me wonder if education is making any progress as the world changes drastically. I was surprised to find out that there are still some strange school rules and customs from the past that don’t seem to fit into today. For example, kids carry their heavy textbooks to and from school every day In Japan kids don’t get a lift from parents so they have to carry them by themselves. Why can’t they just leave their textbooks at school? Sometimes the attitude around rules is, “Rules are rules, so what can I do?” I would like to see the system change to have more flexibility to suit the community and the children. And I think it’s necessary for children to learn more about design. I think it would be nice to have a subject called design in primary school. It is interesting to create something. And if you have that kind of creative consciousness, the world looks different.


I personally don’t like the word discipline. I feel that adults (parents) are great and children are immature so we teach them from the top down. In the olden days in Japan, the most powerful person in the house was the father and there was an atmosphere that no one was against him. There is goodness in a disciplined family but I think children should also respected. Adults are just people who have lived before children. As a person who has lived longer, teach children what is dangerous and what is wrong and I think it’s important to greet people properly and apologise when necessary.


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